It’s a question I get asked often, particularly when non-Orthodox Jewish friends and family learn just how long our conversion has been taking. I’ve even had Orthodox friends on the more left side of the Orthodox spectrum question our dedication to Orthodox Judaism. My answer usually depends on how much time we have to talk.
The truth is that we did try other streams of Judaism. When we first began considering conversion, we spend one Shabbat evening at a nearby Conservative shul. We walked there, amusingly enough, and we tried to feel comfortable. No one spoke to us, but it might have been because we looked Orthodox. At that point, I was already covering my hair full time and they might have spotted the sheital. Or, it could have been the way we were dressed. No one was mean to us at all and we sat among the congregation. The prayers were similar…but not quite the same. There was this feeling of everything being so close to familiar, but just a bit off, like a dish that you grew up with, but a different family’s recipe.
Then, years later, when we took our break from the conversion process, we also tried the Reform shul here in Alaska. There, people were friendly, but it was always like there was some barrier between us. There was warmth, but no interactions with other families went any further than seeing them occasionally at the Synagogue. The prayers and services felt even more foreign and we found ourselves and our children not really accepting what was taught. I cringed when the Rabbi said that Avraham wasn’t that good of a man and that G-d sometimes makes mistakes. It wasn’t long after that we found ourselves back at Chabad and back to our conversion journey.
In an Orthodox Synagogue, I feel a connection to Hashem that I really don’t feel anywhere else. I lose myself in the Hebrew and reach a place where time slows down, where it’s just me and Him and our relationship. I no longer am a mother or wife, I’m a daughter again, speaking with my Father, my King in a way that I just can’t anywhere else. There is an intimacy on my side of the mechitza and a comfort in tradition. I would guess that other people are able to find that in other streams of Judaism, but our family just couldn’t.
Yes, Orthodoxy is hard sometimes.
I often think of how much easier daily life might be if we could be a different kind of Jewish family. I log on after Shabbos and see pictures of some of my Jewish friends hiking on Saturdays or eating out at restaurants we can’t go to. Certainly, it would be easier relating to my own family if we had fewer laws prohibiting the closeness they long for. My mother would be overjoyed if we could eat their food on Thanksgiving or take them out to their favorite restaurant or not have to work around Shabbos on visits. We’d be a lot less foreign and give the rest of the family a lot less to gossip about. Travel would be a lot easier and finding my next job simple since I wouldn’t have to negotiate time off for so many holidays and no on call during my Sabbath. My bosses would be so happy that I could be available to them any time.
And yet…all these things that would make others happy, I feel, would come in the way of that unique relationship I’m privileged to have with my Creator. There is a price for feeling that intimate connection and I pay it daily in the things I must do and cannot do. For me at least, I can’t have one without the other…it’s all wrapped up in Torah.
In my Tanya class, we talk a lot about how mitzvahs slowly shape a person. We learn that even if a person is just going through the motions of doing mitzvahs, they still have the power to change the person. I’ve experienced this myself in my own life. When I’m doing mitzvahs, I want to do more mitzvahs and I do experience a greater closeness, a greater feeling of completeness. When I begin to let go of a mitzvah, it becomes easier to let go of others and I begin to feel more and more like I’m on my own, for good and for bad. I become a wilder thing, independent, riding off into the mountains. Free, but also alone under the big sky.
For a while, that freedom felt good and I drank it in deeply. Soon, however, a loneliness set in. I missed that connection and while I did find a spark of it in every tree and moose, it was like a spark that didn’t belong to me, that wasn’t meant for me. I found that I could no longer connect the way I did before I began conversion, through spending time in nature. When I tried, it was only a glimmer of what I was looking for. Maybe my soul had begun its transformation? Whatever the reason, now, I was changed and no matter what wonders I sought to connect me with their Maker, I found myself longing for the more direct connection I could find in a Siddur and in a life lived according to Torah.
That very first Shabbos back, when we weren’t planning to stay, when it was just so that we could spend time with my husband’s Orthodox mother and stepfather…I was overwhelmed by that connection, as if Hashem had come rushing out of the pages of my Siddur to embrace me as a Father would a child He’s missed for years. I felt embarrassed by my tears and tried to hide them, looking around and realizing that no one was watching. That same familiarity that I could no longer find anywhere else was right there, waiting. My lips formed the Hebrew words easier than before and I felt self-conscious about my bare head, wishing it was covered again. It didn’t feel right being that close to Him without it. I felt underdressed like meeting the President in a t-shirt.
It was so much like being at the airport when my husband steps into view from a trip and that kind of joy at being reunited. He’s home. I’m home. We’re home together again now and everything is going to be all right and as it should be.
And that’s why we went back, even though it is a harder path and even though we’re still in the conversion process and it’s still full of uncertainty. That’s why we stay even though we still don’t know how long this all will take and we aren’t fully accepted in a community until the process finishes. For us, being fully accepted by our community is something to look forward to, but being fully accepted by Hashem is something we already are given, even as we are.
This is home for us.